Here’s a reason why TV ratings have become more interesting in recent years: paradoxically, it’s because hardly anyone watches broadcast TV any more by comparison with previous eras. Television audiences are still large overall, and a major event (usually sports) can still pull in an old-fashioned mass audience, but cable has been chipping away at broadcast viewership since at least the ’80s, along with all the other things (VCRs, DVRs, the internet, more competitive networks). Whether the smaller audience have improved the quality of broadcast TV is another question (unlike cable programming, which obviously did improve since the early ’90s); probably it’s allowed some shows to survive that would once have been marginal, but it’s more likely that the standard for what constitutes marginal ratings have simply changed, and what was getting 9 million viewers in 1994 would be getting something like a third of that today. But the increasingly competitive world of TV and the famous fragmentation of the audience has made ratings more fun to follow. Instead of every show, even the failures, getting unimaginably huge numbers, we’re down to a point where the failures get amusingly low numbers – and we may soon reach the point where some broadcast shows get overall audiences that would be low by cable standards.
And because the overall numbers are low, that focuses attention more on demographics, analyzing what the ratings really mean when you look at a show’s performance with young viewers. It was supposedly ABC, the perennial third-place network in the ’60s, that really pushed the idea of focusing on the 18-49 demographic, and they did it because they couldn’t yet compete with NBC and CBS in terms of overall viewers. While it can’t be fun for a show’s producers to hear that certain viewers don’t count (and not only older viewers: Glee‘s ratings would probably look better if kids and teens counted in the Demo), it does make it more interesting to analyze: there are more ways for a TV show to succeed than just pulling in some gigantic number of viewers. The focus on the 18-49 demo may not be the best thing for broadcast, as networks have started to notice – though it’s doubtful that advertisers will snap up the network executives’ ideas for commercials aimed at older people. But there’s not much doubt that the list of top shows in the 18-49 bracket is a bit more varied than the list of top shows overall.
So while, like I said before, my own interest in ratings has gone down this season (and it’s not out of the question that DVR and online numbers could eventually be more fully incorporated into overall ratings, thus increasing viewership numbers again), I think the overall interest in these numbers is going to keep going up as the broadcast audiences keep getting smaller. It’s somehow more fun to watch networks fight over a shrinking pie, and argue about which one “really” has the biggest piece.
Of course, last night the real interest on TV, despite the strong ABC lineup (Suburgatory and Revenge are among the few new shows that are showing promise), was baseball: watching it on TV, following it on the internet, wherever. Sports are still the biggest events on television.